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On Friday night, two of the best collegiate teams in the Mid-Atlantic clashed in a surprisingly close test that ended with a 15-14 second-half comeback. At Prusmack Sports Complex in Annapolis, Md., D1AA National Champion Mary Washington pushed Navy to the brink for 80 minutes of rugby. UMW led 14-0 at the half, however, the Midshipmen stepped up the its play in the second half to claw back in the match. Navy got within two points of the lead with a pair of tries but it was Andrew Malick’s penalty in the 68th minute that proved to be the game-winner.
“The emphasis [in the second half] was on physicality and accuracy in execution,” Navy head coach Gavin Hickie said. “We were getting into the right positions, but our accuracy in the final third was letting us down. The boys understood that and as Midshipmen, they accepted the challenge and rose to the challenge.”
From UMW’s perspective, head coach Min Sae Chae stated, “In the last 20 minutes especially, Navy’s fitness was better. We just didn’t play our pattern. Our game plan was to play in the 15-meter channels as much as possible and we barely did at all. We got into their game playing in the middle of the field really physically and that is their bread and butter. We wore down because we didn’t play smart.”
From the opening whistle, both teams came to play in this early season contest. UMW struck first in the 21st minute as Matt Gordon softened up the defense with long runs before Jordan Sacks scored in the corner.
Navy moved the ball in scoring position multiple times but it was unable to finish. UMW took advantage and the forwards finally bulldozed through Navy’s goal line defense after successive attempts at the end of the half. Gordon’s number was called for the try and Adam Thomson’s conversion off the upright gave UMW the 14-0 halftime lead.
“I was a little frustrated at the end of the first half that we turned over the ball four times five meters out from their line,” Hickie said. “Our own accuracy close to the opposition try line is something that was letting us down at the moment.”
“It was our third game of the season and we are still a work in progress. At halftime, I vented my frustrations with the players in terms of a lack of physicality and accuracy in certain areas. We knew going into the second half the areas we needed to step up the pressure in.”
It was almost a different team in the second half as Navy turned up the tempo. Dominant scrummaging set up the Midshipmen’s first try as Andrew Malick used go forward ball to drive in for the score and he tacked on his own conversion.
Navy’s physical play took its toll on UMW and Eric Bleakly scored in the corner after the ball was sent through three sets of hands down the blind side. Malick missed the conversion but he had a chance to redeem himself in the 68th minute. After a high tackle penalty from just inside the 22, Malick split the uprights for the 15-14 advantage and the team defense preserved the lead for the final ten minutes.
“This was a fully loaded varsity Mary Washington team with a lot of foreign-born kids who have been playing rugby from a very young age,” Hickie said. “We weren’t surprised at all with what they brought and we prepared to have a battle royale as we did with them last year. Mary Washington may be flying under the radar but because they are so local for us, we are very aware of how good a team they are.”
After getting the lead, Navy played smart to win the game. “The last ten minutes was about playing territory, being smart with possession, and not giving away discipline in defense,” Hickie continued. “I thought we did a nice job maintaining our composure. We’ve talked about this team trying to find its identity and figure out who we are. To be able to close out a tough game coming from behind by two tries shows a lot of resilience and maturity. It’s only one step in becoming a mature team, but an important step.”
Hickie’s main takeaway from Friday’s game is the growing up his club has shown. “We have matured massively as a group from being 14-0 down, being under pressure, then coming back to win. Other than the learning points and knowing what we need to work on, I think come Monday, I’ll see a side of maturity about this group that wasn’t there on Thursday.”
For Mary Washington, this match will serve as a valuable tool for the rest of the season. “Navy is used to playing top teams at a high level and we are not at that level so Friday night showed how we didn’t react as well as Navy did,” Chae said. “Physically and skill-wise, we are up there, but we just have to play at that higher level of decision-making. In terms of the rest of our season, playing Navy is great and they are the best team we are going to face all year. Knowing that gives us confidence towards the rest of our opponents and shows us where we need to improve.”
UMW continues its Chesapeake schedule this Saturday against Georgetown while the Midshipmen host the Norfolk Blues before traveling to Colorado to face Air Force on October 6th.